Is the medicalization of human suffering doing more harm than good?
‘Mental disorder’ is difficult to define.
Generally speaking, mental disorders are conditions that involve either loss of contact with reality or distress and impairment. These experiences lie on a continuum of normal human experience, and so it is impossible to define the precise point at which they become pathological.
What’s more, concepts such as borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and depression listed in classifications of mental disorders may not map onto any real or distinct disease entities. Even if they do, the symptoms and clinical manifestations that define them are open to subjective judgement and interpretation.
In an attempt to address these problems, classifications of mental disorders such as DSM-5 and ICD-10 adopt a ‘menu of symptoms’ approach, and rigidly define each symptom in technical terms that are often far removed from a person’s felt experience. This encourages mental health professionals to focus too narrowly on validating and treating an abstract diagnosis, and not enough on the person’s distress, its context, and its significance or meaning.
Despite using complex aetiological models, mental health professionals tend to overlook that a person’s felt experience often has a meaning in and of itself, even if it is broad, complex, or hard to fathom. By being helped to discover this meaning, the person may be able to identify and address the source of his distress, and so to make a faster, more complete, and more durable recovery. Beyond even this, he may gain important insights into himself, and a more refined and nuanced perspective over his life and life in general. These are rare and precious opportunities, and not to be squandered.
A more fundamental problem with labelling human distress and deviance as mental disorder is that it reduces a complex, important, and distinct part of human life to nothing more than a biological illness or defect, not to be processed or understood, or in some cases even embraced, but to be ‘treated’ and ‘cured’ by any means possible—often with drugs that may be doing much more harm than good. This biological reductiveness, along with the stigma that it attracts, shapes the person’s interpretation and experience of his distress or deviance, and, ultimately, his relation to himself, to others, and to the world.
Moreover, to call out every difference and deviance as mental disorder is also to circumscribe normality and define sanity, not as tranquillity or possibility, which are the products of the wisdom that is being denied, but as conformity, placidity, and a kind of mediocrity.
The evolution of the status of homosexuality in the classifications of mental disorders highlights that concepts of mental disorder can be little more than social constructs that change as society changes. PTSD, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, depression, and deliberate self-harm (non-suicidal self-injury) can all be understood as cultural syndromes. Yet, for being in the DSM and ICD, they are usually seen, and largely legitimized, as biological and therefore universal expressions of human distress.
Other pressing problems with the prevalent medical model is that it encourages false epidemics, most glaringly in depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Data from the US National Health Interview Survey indicate that, in 2012, 13.5% (about 1 in 7) of boys aged 3-17 had been diagnosed with ADHD, up from 8.3% in 1997. It also encourages the wholesale exportation of Western mental disorders and Western accounts of mental disorder. Taken together, this is leading to a pandemic of Western disease categories and treatments, while undermining the variety and richness of the human experience.
For example, in her recent book, Depression in Japan, anthropologist Junko Kitanaka writes that, until relatively recently, depression (utsubyō) had remained largely unknown to the lay population of Japan. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of people diagnosed with depression more than doubled as psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies urged people to re-interpret their distress in terms of depression. Depression, says Kitanaka, is now one of the most frequently cited reasons for taking sick leave, and has been ‘transformed from a rare disease to one of the most talked about illnesses in recent Japanese history’.
Many critics question the scientific evidence underpinning such a robust biological paradigm and call for a radical rethink of mental disorders, not as detached disease processes that can be cut up into diagnostic labels, but as subjective and meaningful experiences grounded in personal and larger sociocultural narratives.
Unlike ‘mere’ medical or physical disorders, mental disorders are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simply acknowledging this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow from their experiences.
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